Lord of the Isles

From Academic Kids

Lord of the Isles, now a Scottish title of nobility, originally referred to a series of hybrid Viking / Gael rulers of the west coast and islands of Scotland in the Middle Ages, who wielded sea-power with fleets of galleys Although at times nominal vassals of the King of Norway and/or of the King of Scotland, the Lords of the Isles remained functionally independent for many centuries. Their territory included the Hebrides, (Skye and Ross from 1438), Knoydart, Ardnamurchan, the Kintyre peninsula, Arran and Antrim in Ireland (see map (



The west coast and islands of present-day Scotland formed part of the territories of the Northern Picts (the Alban Gael), but in the 7th and 8th centuries this area, like others, suffered raids and invasions by vikings from both Norway and Denmark, and the islands became known to the Gael as Innse-Gall, the Islands of the Strangers. Around 875 Norwegian jarls, or princes, (literally "earls") came to these islands to avoid losing their independence in the course of King Harald Fairhair's unification of Norway, but Harald pursued them, and conquered the Hebrides as well as Man, the Shetlands and Orkneys. The following year the people of the Isles, both the Picts (called the Gall Gael) and the Norse, rebelled. Harald sent his cousin Ketil to regain control, but Ketil then declared himself King of the Isles. Scotland and Norway would continue to dispute overlordship of the area, with the Jarls of Orkney at times seeing themselves as independent rulers.

In 973 Marcus, King of the Isles, Kenneth III, King of the Scots, and Malcolm, King of the Cambri agreed on a mutual defensive alliance, but subsequently the Scandinavians defeated Gilledomman of the Isles and expelled him to Ireland. The Norse nobleman Godred Crovan, ruler of Man and the Isles, then encouraged the Isles to break away and become an independent state, but in 1095 the new King Magnus Bare Leg of Norway deposed Godred, and (according to Prebble) went on to use the threat of invasion to successfully bully King Edgar I of Scotland into ceding the Hebrides and Kintyre to Norway. Lavery cites a tale from the Orkneyinga saga, according to which in 1098 King Malcolm III of Scotland offered Earl Magnus of Orkney all the islands off the west coast navigable with the rudder set. Magnus then allegedly had a skiff hauled across the neck of land at Tarbert, Loch Fyne with himself at the helm, thus including the Kintyre peninsula in the Isles' sphere of influence. (The date given falls after the end of Malcolm's reign in 1093).

Founding of the dynasties

Somerled, Gilledomman's grandson, successfully seized the Isles from the Norse in 1140 and founded the dynasties of the Lords of the Isles. He had Celtic blood on his father's side and Norse on his mother's: his contemporaries knew him as Somerled Macgilbred, Somhairle or in Norse Sumarlidi Höld ('Somerled' means "summer wanderer", the name given to the Vikings). He took the title Rex Insularum (King of the Isles) as well as King of Man.

After Somerled's death in 1164 three of his sons divided his kingdom between them:

  • Aonghus (ancestor of the McRuari or McRory)
  • Dughall (ancestor of Clan MacDougall)
  • Ragnald, whose son Donald Mor McRanald would give his name to the Clan Donald which would contest territory with the MacDougalls.

King Haakon IV of Norway (reigned 1217 - 1263) confirmed Donald's son Angus Mor (the Elder) Mac Donald (the first Macdonald) as Lord of Islay, and the two participated jointly in the Battle of Largs (1263). When that ended with an effective victory for the Scots, Angus Mor accepted King Alexander III as his (nominal) overlord and retained his own territory.

Lords of the Isles

Angus Og (Angus the Young), Angus Mor's (Angus the Great) younger son (or grandson), gave assistance to Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and in reward kept control of the Isles and gained most of the land confiscated from the McDougalls for backing the defeated side. Angus Og's son Good John of Islay first formally assumed the title Lord of the Isles.

In their maritime domain the Lords of the Isles used galleys for both warfare and transport. These ships had developed from the Viking longships and knarrs, clinker-built with a square sail and rows of oars. From the 14th century they changed from using a steering oar to a stern rudder. These ships took part in sea battles and attacked castles or forts built close to the sea. The Lordship specified the feudal dues of its subjects in terms of numbers and sizes of the galleys each area had to provide in service to their Lord.

Successive Lords of the Isles fiercely asserted their independence, culminating in 1462 with John Macdonald II of the Isles making a treaty with Edward IV of England to conquer Scotland with him and the Earl of Douglas. On the discovery of this treason in 1493 John Macdonald II forfeited his estates and titles to James IV of Scotland. Since then, the eldest male child of the reigning Scottish (and later, British) monarch has held the title of the "Lord of the Isles".

Currently (as of 2004) Charles, Prince of Wales bears the title of Lord of the Isles.

See also: List of Kings of the Isle of Man and the Isles

External links


  • The Lion in the North, John Prebble, Penguin Books 1973
  • Maritime Scotland, Brian Lavery, B T Batsford Ltd., 2001, ISBN 0-7134-8520-5

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